Putting geography back on the map; James Binko teaches importance of keeping the subject in class


James Binko has spent his last 13 summers creating what he calls "geo-evangelists" -- teachers convinced of the importance of teaching geography who spread the word among their colleagues across the country.

He has been so successful that his name is now a verb. "All across the country, teachers say, 'Have you been Binkoed?' " says Joseph Ferguson, the assistant director of the National Geographic Society's geographic education division. He estimates that, directly or indirectly, about 18,000 teachers have been Binkoed.

For these efforts, the veteran Towson University education professor will receive National Geographic's Distinguished Geography Educator Award tonight in Boston. It's the first time the award, established in 1990, has gone to a nongeographer.

Usually the award is presented at National Geographic's headquarters in Washington, but this one is being handed out at the convention of the National Council of Geographic Educators because many of the 1,000 in attendance have been Binkoed.

Gilbert M. Grosvenor was president of the National Geographic Society in the mid-80s when the organization started its program to boost geography education. Since then, the society has spent close to $100 million.

"We wanted to restore geography to America's classrooms, make sure the subject was well taught and bring our youngsters up in the world standings," says Grosvenor, now chairman of the board of the society. "They were dead last at the time.

"We wanted someone with hands-on experience working with teachers so we asked Jim Binko to get us started for a year or two. He's been there ever since," Grosvenor says of the lifelong Baltimorean who graduated from Towson State College in 1962 and served as dean of its school of education for 13 years.

The centerpiece of the National Geographic effort is a yearly summer institute that attracts elementary and secondary teachers nationwide for a month-long immersion in geography and its pedagogy at National Geographic's expense.

When Binko went to Washington for the first of those institutes in 1986, he assumed he was there to pass along his knowledge of teaching methods, that his undergraduate minor in geography would make him an intellectual midget among the geographic giants. But as he met the 50 teachers at that gathering, he realized just how far the nation's geographic literacy had slipped.

"I think it had gotten lost in the move to social studies," he says. The demise of geography as a separate subject meant in many cases it was simply no longer taught.

Binko and his colleagues went to work, telling teachers that geography is a fundamental part of social studies.

The teachers were also shown how geography can, and should, pop up anywhere in the curriculum. "If you're reading a story in English, it's set somewhere," Binko says. "That's geography."

Once the teachers had learned these ideas, Binko showed them how to teach their fellow educators. When you learn his straightforward method of getting across ways to teach geography in a sensible, organized, hands-on fashion, you've been Binkoed.

That's happened to about 50 teachers each year since 1986 in the summer institutes. Each of those has gone home and, working with local organizations that promote geography, Binkoed others.

"We told them to get into positions of influence on school boards, curriculum committees, to try to get geography taught, if possible as a separate subject," Binko says.

Binko says this is more important than ever in the era of the World Wide Web. "It requires students to develop a world view and be aware of what's happening on the rest of the planet," he says.

Grosvenor agrees. "I think as access to the planet gets easier, knowledge of geography is more crucial. Most companies, certainly ours, are now committed to the concept that their major growth will be outside the United States, in the international arena."

Grosvenor says there's evidence these efforts are paying off -- more school systems require geography, more colleges offer it as a major, and there have been better test results.

"Jim Binko has been an integral part of this. We couldn't have done it without him," says Grosvenor.

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